Better Call Saul: “Uno”
Sixteen months later and not a day too late.
Better Call Saul, the long rumored, oft speculated Breaking Bad prequel, is finally upon us. What a mix of emotions I felt when I saw creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s names blip across the show’s VHS tinted title sequence. And let me clarify – these were good emotions, healthy feelings, rooted within a long-gestating desire to return to Gilligan’s Albuquerque once again.
This is due to the fact that Gilligan’s vision of Albuquerque and its landscape has indelibly soldered itself upon the eyes of its viewers. That disparate link between the adobe-tinted suburbia and circumscribing badlands has held a five season-long conflict for geographic supremacy. Then it is important to recognize that Albuquerque too had become a player within Gilligan’s morality play, offering itself as an ambient construct that envisioned the threshold between civilization’s end and desolation’s beginning.
Yet the question remains, and now that I’ve seen it and you’ve seen it; Well, is it any good?
One thing that stuck out was that “Uno”, the pilot episode, was well paced, patient and, most importantly, confident, indicating that the same narrative cornerstones that made Walter’s journey flawlessly synchronized between tension, tale and thrill were also going to be applied here. In addition, Better Call Saul enthusiastically borrowed from its heralded TV cousin, opting also to begin with the cold open, a narrative device that its writers had already mastered to a state of sublime perfection.
So yes. Yes! I thought the inaugural episode was very good – even better with traces of greatness lying further ahead in the sun-drenched horizon. But to properly consider the episode as a whole product, its necessary to go back to “Uno’s” beginning, to that fantastically unforeseen cold open.
Filmed in black and white and attuned to the cooing melodies of The Ink Spots, the opening scenes unexpectedly reveal the extent of Saul Goodman’s post-Heisenberg activities, or rather, a complete lack thereof. Here, it is important we refer back to a piece of dialogue between Saul and Walt that helps clarify what is exactly happening in those opening scenes:
Initially, I always viewed this exchange to be a moment of classic-Saul conjecture in his moments of frustration or duress. However, in “Uno”, Saul’s “best-case scenario” sputterings actually do turn out to be his B&W filtered reality. With his eyes now permanently cast over his shoulders in the flatlands of Omaha, Saul portions out fists of dough, kneads the sugar coating unto the cinnasweeties, and rewatches a VHS of his 10-second ads whilst glumly nursing a rusty nail on the rocks. Here, the visuals, music selection and stark lack of dialogue all amount to an excellent opening, one brimming with subtle details and inviting shots that feel dissimilar enough while still sustaining that visual chemistry we’ve seen before.
And just like any other TV pilot, “Uno” begins to quickly lay down the initial pipework. The actual story begins in a painfully silent Albuquerque courtroom, where one Saul Goodman James “Jimmy” McGill is noticeably absent. He is instead moonlighting his final remarks by the men’s room urinals, and ultimately fails in his quest to defend his three teenaged “knuckleheads” from their “momentary, minute, never to be repeated lapse of judgment”. Yet, it is not Jimmy’s fault that the defense appears to be so shoddily put together at the last minute. If the lapse was the blasphemous act of skull-fucking an elderly male corpse, decapitating it, and then recording the traumatizing obscenity for all to witness, then Jimmy’s words were a casual formality before the preordained wrath of the judge, jury, and executioner was unleashed.
However, the real insult to Jimmy here is not his lost case but rather the sparse nature of his post-trial paycheck. You see, public defendant work has left our legal defender in dire financial straits. The situation has become so desperate that the threat of a $3 fine levied by toll guard Mike Ehrmantraut warrants a walk back to the courthouse for that last verification sticker. And Jimmy’s losing streak continues when potential big tuna client County Treasurer Craig Kettleman and his wife, Betsy, decline his legal services by touting the “maybe we should sleep on it honey” routine.
Despite all that has happened thus far, back at his makeshift nail salon closet space/law offices, Jimmy tears up a check for $26,000 without a moment’s hesitation. He then rumbles on over to the legal offices of Hamlin Hamlin and McGill’s to scatter the shredded remains of that check onto the table of its original issuers.
There, in that boardroom, the situation is made suddenly clear. The McGill in Hamlin Hamlin and McGill isn’t a reference to Jimmy but rather his older brother, Chuck McGill, who also happens to be a lawyer. For quite some time now, Chuck has taken a paid sabbatical leave due to suffering from a sickness known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Here, Jimmy’s bone to pick with the other two Hamlin’s concerns a savvy business ploy to oust Chuck from the firm without paying his severance, valued within the arena of a cool $17 million. And to throw one last wrench into the equation, it appears that Chuck’s old-moneyed loyalties to the firm will morally prevent him from executing Jimmy’s proposed exit-strategy.
Therefore, all the frustration that Jimmy has endured up to this point finally collapses in on itself when he spots his proverbial final straw, the Kettleman’s yakking it up at the doorsteps of Hamlin Hamlin and McGill. So he decides to enlist the skater twins who, earlier on, tried a quick hustle on him for some fast cash, and schemes a plot to reel the Kettleman’s away from Hamlin’s gilded pockets. With a camcorder, two skateboards, a blind corner and a swath of café-dwelling yuppies soon-to-be unwilling eyewitnesses, Jimmy IDs Mrs. Kettleman’s weekday route and sends the twins off to pull the standard you-skate-into-the-windshield-and-I-get-it-all-on-camera schtick. Then with distraught Betsy Kettleman in fear of tarnishing her husband’s public profile, Saul swoops in, diffuses the situation and walks away with her business, signature and all.
However, the windshield-shattered car never stops, causing the “injured” twins to actively chase after the now hit-and-run offender. In a dog chases the cat chases the mouse scenario, Jimmy ends up at the house where Mrs. Kettleman’s car is parked outside alongside two stray skateboards. He adamantly approaches the house and vocally demands to be let in at the front door, cue an armed Tuco Salamanca slyly emerging to happily oblige Jimmy’s request.
At this point, after watching scheme after scheme turn up Jimmy’s pockets lint-empty, we’ll take anything we can get for him to kickstart his unwitting drive towards becoming Saul Goodman. Now that he’s inadvertently tangled up with the local madcap drug kingpin, Tuco “TIGHT! TIGHT! TIGHT!” Salamanca, we should all let out a collective sigh, kick back and enjoy the ride; it finally appears that Jimmy is well on his way.